Once, a long time ago, I stood in the sky far above the world.
The observation deck of the World Trade Center was more than 1000 feet high. The windows were wide, floor-to-ceiling glass. The first thing I did was press my nose against it, my hands beside my face, fingers splayed wide. I looked down.
Almost everyone looked out, out toward the view, into the distance. The view was vast and wide. You could see forever. It felt like floating, flying. People pointed and tried to pick out landmarks and places of interest. But I was not concerned with ‘out’. Out was away, abstract, and far. Down was real, immediate, and near. I knew I could be down faster than away. So I looked down. I placed myself in space. I found the ground and pictured in my mind where I was in the sky.
I was nervous; I knew I wasn’t meant to be so high. Still, I knew I was safe as well. I would not fall. My feet were planted firmly on steel girders that would not bend or break, surrounded by glass thick and impenetrable. This place would never fall or allow me to do so.
The place where I once stood no longer exists. Collapsed to the ground, crushed to ash and dust, shattered glass, and twisted metal.
I had come to New York on a class trip. The 6th-grade adventure. I was twelve. Permission slips were signed, the fees were paid and the pre-teens were loaded onto a bus. A real bus. Not the school kind, the orange-yellow kind, the kind of bus with torn plastic upholstery that smelled like BO and ammonia. This was a real, honest-to-goodness bus with reclining seats and armrests and a shelf above your head to put your things; the kind with individual air vents and a bathroom in the back. And it smelled like pine trees; real pine trees, not cardboard trees that hung from rear-view mirrors. It was special.
The trip took two hours from Philly to New York. Stay seated, don’t act up, talk, and have fun. Just do it quietly. When we reached the city and emerged from the tunnel, the whirlwind tour began. The Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island, a 360-degree surround movie called “The Story of New York”, lunch at a “real” deli, St. Patrick’s Cathedral, then to the Towers. The tallest buildings on Earth.
As we stood in line for the elevator to take us to the top we discussed the appropriate details. If you dropped a penny from the top would it crack the sidewalk? Could the wind blow you off the roof and send you flying like a kite? Rob Lawson, whose father was in construction and therefore knew this kind of thing, was the resident expert. Yes, he told us, not only could a penny crack the sidewalk but if it hits in just the right place, on the center of the head, it could split a man in two. Like a knife through butter. And yes, you could in fact be blown away by the wind, right out to the Hudson in fact, as long as you were wearing baggy clothes that is. At this point, shirts were tucked and hoodies zipped.
We were ushered into the elevator and when it moved, it moved fast. We were in a rocket. We clung to each other with giggles and screams half thinking we would keep going and be shot into space. But it finally slowed and stopped and with ears popping the doors opened to reveal what seemed like the whole universe spread out before us. Tentatively we stepped out, one by one, from our protective box to wonder the sky.
In one of the many gift shops on that floor high off the ground, I bought my mother a souvenir. It was a Chinese doll; a geisha to be in fact, though at the time I didn’t know what that was. She was white-faced and dressed in a red gown. There were gold patterns in stripes along the edges and sleeves. She played an instrument, like a guitar or a mandolin, but different. She was delicate and thin and tall and seemed like she would fall over at any moment. She stood on a tiny disc propped up by a thin stiff piece of metal. I thought she was lovely.
I was told, advised, by several chaperones to get something more ‘New-Yorky’ – a Statue of Liberty or an Empire State Building, or maybe a snow globe with a skyline in it. But I bought the geisha, for no other reason than I thought she was pretty. On the bus ride home, I cradled the doll wrapped in green tissue paper like a fine treasure.
Years later and thousands of miles away on an autumn morning I lay on the floor with my daughter playing Polly Pockets when I heard my wife scream from the living room, “Oh my God, the Tower is falling.” I ran to the room holding my baby girl in my arms to stand in front of the TV as the second tower crumbled and burned. Death and dust and fire. My wife asked in a whisper, “Is it real?” I shook my head.
I’ve been back to New York City. I’ve stood near the remains and the rubble. I looked up into the sky, up to where my feet once stood. I searched for the place far above the earth, the place that seemed so safe and solid, indestructible. The place where I bought a geisha doll, the one that still sits on my mother’s bookshelf dust-covered and faded to gray, a relic from the sky. I tried to place myself there again but all I could find were clouds and wind.
Originally published May 3, 2013